[14 March 2008]
Professor Layton and the Curious Village arrives in a gaming landscape where more traditional adventure games, evolved from the “point-and-click” style, are finding a home on the Nintendo DS. Examples include the Ace Attorney series and the exceptional Hotel Dusk: Room 215. The DS has also become the platform of choice for titles comprised of brain exercises and puzzles. Brain Age seems to have opened the floodgates for these types of games. Professor Layton and the Curious Village succeeds because of the way it marries these two popular DS styles while packaging the combination in a unique and aesthetically pleasing way.
Telling the story of the titular protagonist and his apprentice, Luke, the narrative of Professor Layton takes place in a quaint village where all the townsfolk are puzzle fanatics, and take every possible opportunity to present their puzzles to Layton and Luke. The touchscreen is used to either write in answers or manipulate the virtual pieces of any given puzzle interactively. Hints may be purchased with “hint coins”, which are generously scattered throughout the game, so although challenging, Professor Layton is very rarely frustrating. The plot is actually fairly interesting, which, given the pedigree of the developer Level-5 and their experience with various role playing games, is to be expected. Realistically, the story itself is a puzzle, with clues scattered throughout the course of the game, and sharp players will likely guess elements of its resolution well before the final act concludes.
One of the problems with Layton, however, is that realistically there are a discrete number of kinds of brainteasers out there. Certainly, you see the same types repeated more than once with subtly altered requirements that make later iterations somewhat more difficult. Further, there are probably a few too many puzzles that rely on interpretation of the stated problem in a strictly literal sense. Similarly, there are a few for which there is no trick—that is to say you simply have to go through the drudgery of counting items or paying attention to the exact presentation of something, without there being any sort of logical thinking required. But as there are well over 100 puzzles to solve, and the majority are interesting and challenging, such an issue can easily be overlooked. That said, as The Curious Village is only the first in a planned trilogy, it will be interesting to see whether or not Level-5 is able to find new ways to entertain players as the series progresses.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is unique primarily because of its presentation. The art has stylistic elements that draw from both Japanese and European comics and animation. The animation used in the cutscenes is exceptionally charming. Unfortunately, there isn’t very much of it, probably due to the size limitations of a DS cartridge. Perhaps a more animation-heavy entry to the series would be at home on the Wii. In any case, the characters and scenery are wonderfully drawn, and animate vividly when the situation requires. As far as the sound is concerned, the music is fairly spartan and unobtrusive, which makes sense for a game centered on brainteasers. Vocally, it’s interesting to note the British accents for both Layton and Luke, given that this was originally a Japanese game. Perhaps the localization team made that particular decision to highlight the European elements in the design, or alternatively to draw on the rich history of fictional European sleuths, prompting comparisons between Professor Layton and Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.
The very nature of both point-and-click adventure and logic based puzzle games inhibits replayability. It serves the title well, then, that a variety of puzzles are available both as extras during the course of the game as well as through bonus content completely separate from the narrative. Layton makes good use of the Nintendo WiFi service as well, as an additional puzzle is released weekly that is free for players to download. These elements offer Layton a degree of longevity it might appear to lack at first glance.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is an example of modeling a new property after existing successes in the current gaming landscape without resorting to strict apery, and also bringing something unique to the table. For that, Level 5 should be commended. Further, it is exactly the kind of experimentation that currently seems so at home on Nintendo consoles that leads to experiences as enjoyable as this in the first place. Certainly it helps that both the Wii and the DS have interfaces that lend themselves to resurrecting the point-and-click style of play. Again, what remains to be seen is how well Level 5 is able to keep the series fresh. With two sequels already in the works and a feature film planned, it is possible that the charm of the series will wane over time due to overextension. But for the time being, this introduction to the world of Professor Layton is certainly welcome for fans of both adventure and puzzle games alike.